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Bob Blackburn - Smoke Over Oklahoma

An exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center pictorializes the historical importance of railroads to the state.
Bob Blackburn - Smoke Over Oklahoma

Bob Blackburn - Smoke Over Oklahoma

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Oklahoma Historical Society

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Show 1719: Bob Blackburn - Smoke Over Oklahoma
Air Date: May 7, 2017



Rob McClendon: Well, a new exhibit at the Oklahoma History Center chronicles the role early railroads played in our state through the eye of an Oklahoman and his camera. And I had the executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society Bob Blackburn show me around. Dr. Blackburn, how important were railroads in the development of Oklahoma?

Bob Blackburn: Well, from 1871 when the first rail line was built across Indian Territory --- that was the old Katy that connected Vinita, Muskogee, Atoka, Durant -- to the 1920s, railroads determined success or failure for communities. If you had a railroad, you had a chance to import goods cheaply, a way to get the commodities out, whether it was oil or wheat or cotton. And then if you were at the junction of two railroads you had an advantage that was doubled. So towns like Oklahoma City, Muskogee, Woodward, Enid grew because they had the railroad connections. Towns that did not have that did not. So you can drive through any Oklahoma community, and I can tell you when they were booming. And it was because they could get those commodities out to add value to what they were producing, to get things in at a lower value and attract population, development, commerce would grow. So until the 1930s, railroads were the most important link with economic success, with population growth, with social history, whether it was a circus traveling by rail or bringing movies in for the theater by rail or the Chautauqua people moving around the country. Socially, railroads were very significant.

Rob: And not only were there competition for the railroads, there was also competition among the railroads. Not all of them lasted.

Bob Blackburn: Absolutely, and there were so many short-line railroads. There was one railroad that’s depicted in this exhibit, The Oklahoma Central, that was funded with Dutch money on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange in 1907. These Dutchmen trying to get 6 percent return on their money invested in this little rail line that went from Pauls Valley to Chickasha connecting with Krebs. So the coal, the community of Pauls Valley, which was doing very well at the time, and Chickasha that was cotton culture. Well, they invested, and they built. Well, they didn’t survive because as the value of cotton and coal went down, it went away. And so we have a lot of abandoned rail lines in Oklahoma because there were so many built. From 1900 to 1910 more miles of track laid in Oklahoma than in all other decades combined, even the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s. That one decade, that was the golden age of railroads in Oklahoma. And this exhibit behind us captures the drama of those steam-powered locomotives going up an incline, either in western Oklahoma, eastern Oklahoma, southern, northern, under a full head of steam delivering those goods and passengers to these communities. These photographs were taken by Preston George, a graduate of A&M, an engineer who had this artistic side of taking one photograph of a steam locomotive belching out that smoke, but then the engineering side would collect the data. Where did that train start? Where did it end? What was the cargo? What’s the configuration of the locomotives? We have over a thousand of these negatives with all of this information that came in, in one collection. Now, we have a book, this exhibit called “Smoke Over Oklahoma,” to draw attention both to Preston’s accomplishment, but also the significance of railroads in our history.

Rob: All right. Thank you so much, Dr. Blackburn.

Bob Blackburn: Thank you.